“Mommy, why are two churches burning?”
His little face looked up at mine, hair tousled, eyes troubled. He was thinking of the photos he had seen of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He was thinking also of our neighborhood church of St. Joseph, which had burned down the night before, on the eve of the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1.
These are images that are hard for a child to understand, and hard for anyone to accept. These are sacred things, representing future glories, reduced to skeletons and ash. How does a parent explain the fragility of what seems to little souls — and to all of us — so towering and eternal?
I leaned in close, as we stepped inside his kindergarten classroom, and whispered something about not really knowing why and that it would be okay. This was one of those times I just didn’t have a satisfactory answer. When God’s mysterious ways leave me silent and a little at a loss.
I had been to Notre Dame while studying abroad in college. On a weekend trip by train to Paris, backpacks slung across our tired backs, my friend and I stood speechless in her shadow. No photograph or image could do this place justice — a testament to a thousand years of love, labor and prayer. Towers reaching up to heaven like hands lifted in prayer, craving the touch of heaven with the same brave longing of the woman reaching for the hem of His garment. She was breathtaking and seared our young American eyes with her beauty.
It was strange, in the videos of the fire, to see her glowing from the inside. As if her heart was burning even as her frame gave way. There was much talk of this as a sign, a symbol of a once-Christian culture crumbling under secularism and sin. True enough. But we were all relieved, in the end, to see much left standing. It was an invitation to hope. God will, the Church herself reminded us, always have the final word.
St. Joseph’s was a humble building, with low-slung ceilings, utterly simple, inside and out. This place would never have stunned you by beauty. But still, she held Jesus inside; 24 hours a day he was exposed within her walls. Although it was not our parish, I often found myself on my knees there, begging for grace and lost in prayer. Saturdays often found me slipping into line for Confession.
They would call it a complete loss. It was surreal when days after the fire we found charred scraps still floating into our yard. What part of the Church was this, I speculated, holding a blackened bit of debris, wondering if it was something consecrated and sacred.
Dust to dust.
These stories serve to remind us of certain things, like smudges of ash on our forehead. They call to mind just how little will remain in the end. We can spend centuries carving glory out of rock and gold and glass, and it is good that we do. But our interior temples, holding Christ, will be all we possess at last. That is the truth to cling to as tightly as the sticky little hand entwined in my own.
As I kissed my son goodbye that morning, I was struck that the day was dedicated to the patron saint of workers, to a man who lived his life to create, to build, to provide, to protect. And now, he was entrusted with the entire Church. I headed into Mass, a prayer in my heart that St. Joseph would help us rebuild our holy places and, even more, make our hearts temples of everlasting beauty.